There is a saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Well, in a recent ASME article. author Mark Crawford talks about five major engineering achievements by the Romans that we engineers could well study. These five, several of which are still in operation today, are:
1) Aqueducts – brought water from the countryside into the cities. Some were underground pipes, however the most visible aqueducts are those flowing on massive bridge structures. As Mr. Crawford indicated, some of these aqueducts still supply water to some of the famous fountains in Rome.
2) Roads – the article said that by 200 AD the Romans had built more than 50,000 roads. They were built much like roads are today, with drainage systems of rock and gravel to support the roads. Then the top layer was flagstone tilted slightly to the outside of the road to also provide drainage. Modern roads have this same “crown” slope to the outside.
3) Bridges – most Roman bridges used a semi-circular arch design which as we know now are very strong. One Roman bridge in Spain still stands today, having been constructed of stones that weighed as much as 8 tons and were so precise in their dimensions no mortar was required.
4) Sewers – we normally think of sewer systems as modern designs, however the Romans had all the same elements we have now. And like modern times, the Roman system had environmental consequences eventually polluting the Tiber River that runs through Rome.
5) Heated Floors – radiant heated floors are another system that we think of as modern, however the Romans designed elaborate heating and ducting systems. Of course, only wealthy Romans could afford such a system, however it is amazing that any Roman had such a system.
The article also notes that the Romans made an incredibly strong “concrete” both for dry land and for underwater structures. The combination of materials is still unknown but is so unique that researchers at MIT are trying to unravel the mystery. The most familiar structure in Rome which is the largest in the world that used this concrete is the Pantheon.
This is a short but very interesting article. If I ever get to go to Rome, I will definitely schedule in tours to these incredible ancient technologies. – Dr. Tom